Police in Tbong Khmum province found more than 4,000 pieces of undocumented rosewood after raiding the home of a commune chief over the weekend but chose not to arrest the official pending further investigation.
Chan Tara, an assistant to provincial court prosecutor Heang Sopheak, said 10 officers raided the home of Hem Yiep, the chief of Ponhea Krek district’s Trapaing Phlong commune, on Saturday morning, acting on a tip from a resident. There, inside a large shed used to house pigs, they found 4,696 pieces of rosewood weighing a total of 17.7 tons.
Mr. Tara said the commune chief, a CPP member, attempted to persuade authorities not to take the valuable wood, arguing that prosecuting the case would cost the party votes in upcoming elections.
“The commune chief tried to stop us from entering the pig shed to see the rosewood, and he accused us of inspecting it illegally and said votes would be lost because of the court action. But I replied that we will lose only one vote—from the commune chief’s family—because he was smuggling rosewood,” he said.
Mr. Tara said police who seized the wood did not arrest the commune chief, however, because they first wanted to investigate the case further, noting that Mr. Yiep initially said the shed was his but later claimed it belonged to his daughter.
“We will issue a court warrant to arrest the commune chief if he refuses to give a clear explanation to the Forestry Administration because we suspect that he is involved with the rosewood,” he said. “If the commune chief denies ownership of the rosewood, he is still responsible for the crime because he provided a place for someone to hide it.”
In an interview on Monday, Mr. Yiep said the shed was his daughter’s. And after claiming that the wood belonged to a friend of his, however, he said that it, too, belonged to his daughter—and that it was none of his business.
“I am not involved with this rosewood. My daughter owns the wood, and I never worry about her business,” he said, adding that he had no intention of speaking with the Forestry Administration.
“I will not go to give answer to the Forestry Administration because I am not involved,” he said. “My children deal the wood.”
In an unrelated case in Kompong Thom province, Yim Phoan, chief of the provincial police’s anti-economic crime bureau, who has been summoned over a load of rosewood seized from three cars on his property earlier this month, said he would attend his scheduled questioning at the provincial court on Thursday.
“I will go and respect the court summons,” he said, maintaining his innocence. “I am not afraid of arrest because my lawyer will accompany me.”
Like Mr. Yiep, Mr. Phoan remains free.
Pen Bonnar, a senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, said both men were receiving favorable treatment because they were state employees and could implicate their colleagues if squeezed.
“Authorities do not dare to arrest a police officer or a commune chief because they are afraid those people will reveal their crimes, because they also deal rosewood,” he said. “The court does not dare to punish one or two people dealing rosewood because they are afraid of finding more police officers involved in the crime after they investigate.”